THE HEADLESS GHOST (1959)
Synopsis: In England, three college-aged exchange students, Americans Ronnie (Richard Lyon) and Bill (David Rose) and the Danish Ingrid (Liliane Sottane), join a daytrip to Ambrose Castle, which has the reputation of being haunted. The 16th Earl of Ambrose (Jack Allen) acts as the group’s guide, showing the visitors into the Great Hall, in which portraits of many of the Earl’s ancestors are to be found, including that of Malcolm, who was executed for treason. The group then tours the dungeons before heading out into the castle’s extensive grounds. Ronnie and Bill take the opportunity to question Lord Ambrose about the rumours of a haunting. The Earl assures the boys that these are more than just rumours, dismissing the sceptical Americans’ suggestion that such stories would be an excellent way of bringing in tourist dollars. When the Earl has left to join the rest of the party, Ingrid announces that she believes in the ghosts, triggering a brief argument with Ronnie and Bill, who continue to scoff. Ronnie then proposes that he and Bill stay behind after the tour group has gone, to investigate the legends themselves. The boys try to send Ingrid away, but she insists upon being a part of the enterprise. When the bell sounds to signal that it is time to leave, the three hide. When Lord Ambrose and the guards have left for the night, the students emerge from their refuge – the Ambrose family cemetery – and re-enter the castle. No sooner have they returned to the Main Hall, where the family portraits hang, than a voice speaks to them, bidding them come closer. The three bolt for the doors, which swing shut and lock themselves. The voice reiterates its command, and in extreme trepidation, the intruders obey. A figure emerges from one of the portraits and takes form before them: it is the ghost of the 4th Earl of Ambrose (Clive Revill). Assuring the three of his incorporeality, the ghost “introduces” the other members of his family. As he does so, the portrait of another Ambrose, Randolph, drops suddenly from the wall. The ghost warns the others to beware of Randolph, then speaks of Malcolm, who was not only beheaded, but condemned to wander Ambrose Castle after death until his head rejoined his body. When Ronnie asks why the other ghosts don’t help Malcolm, the 4th Earl explains that there is a limit to their powers. Before the evil spirit that is inhabiting Malcolm’s body can be driven out, a magical leather pouch must be located in its secret hiding place; the pouch must then be thrown at Malcolm’s portrait while an incantation is spoken. The ghost then begs the three intruders for help, explaining that all the other Ambrose ghosts are trapped along with Malcolm; that none of them can find rest until Malcolm reclaims his head….
Comments: In the early days of motion pictures, three things were born almost simultaneously: the horror film, the horror-comedy, and the bad horror-comedy. Few sub-genres can boast such an old and uninterrupted pedigree: from the first adaptation of The Ghost Breaker in 1914 to 2003’s The Haunted Mansion, they just keep cranking ’em out. As these bookends would indicate, there seems to something about the ghost story that attracts this kind of approach; or perhaps it is simply that serious ghost stories are beyond the limited skills of many who dabble in the genre film. The Headless Ghost is the bad horror-comedy at its most painful, being equally lacking in laughs, chills, and entertainment value generally. As such, it is most disconcerting to find upon the film’s credits the name of Herman Cohen, a man who has never really received his full due for the extent of his contribution to the wonderful world of cult cinema. The Headless Ghost forms a strange little watershed in Cohen’s career, falling neatly between his career-making teen-angst-meets-science-fiction films of the nineteen-fifties, and his increasingly deranged exploitationers of the nineteen-sixties. I can’t positively swear that The Headless Ghost is the worst film that Cohen was ever associated with – he was part of the production team for Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla, so very likely not – but it may well be the least enjoyable. By the end of the film, we are fully in sympathy with the ghosts of Ambrose Castle: sixty-two minutes of film have rarely felt so much like being trapped for eternity.
Although made and set in England, as would be almost all of Cohen’s productions from this point onwards, The Headless Ghost makes an obvious pitch for an international (or at least, US) audience by centring upon a trio of exchange students. Two of them are American, and proclaim their nationality by failing to find anything of interest in Ambrose Castle, chiefly because it isn’t a skyscraper built within their own lifetimes. Yes, they’re that kind of American. The third student, Ingrid, is conversely fascinated by the history on display before her, and says so in the most Frenchified “Danish” accent that you will ever hear. She drags her reluctant companions into the castle, where the incumbent Earl of Ambrose is leading the tour of his ancestral home. The only genuine laughs to be found in The Headless Ghost follow, and needless to say they are entirely unintentional, coming in the form of the screenplay’s utter disregard for history. Really, you can hardly blame Bill and Ronnie for suspecting the Earl of being a con-artist, given the hodge-podge of dates and eras that are supposed to comprise the chronology of his family. I’m particularly fond, for example, of the Ambrose who succumbed to plague “in the middle of the 17th century”, yet apparently pre-dates another ancestor who “returned from the Crusades”! (The film’s general air of sloppiness is not helped by the costumes we eventually see worn by some of the Earl’s ancestors, which are pure Renaissance Fair.) From the Great Hall, the Earl leads the group down into the dungeons. (Another, presumably unintentional, laugh is served up here. We’ve already witnessed a little girl with the tour group beaming happily through the story of Malcolm’s execution. Now, the broadly smiling Earl takes a moment to point out the special features of his castle’s subterranean hellholes to her, and she giggles in response. Hey, nothing gets the kids in like executioners’ axes and thumbscrews, right?) Ronnie and Bill then question the Earl about the castle’s ghosts, and upon being assured that the stories are true, express their disbelief in terms none too polite, effectively accusing the Earl to his face of being a professional swindler. It is at this point that Bill confirms our uneasy suspicions that he will prove to be the film’s Odious Comic Relief, by announcing loudly that the whole ghost thing, “Could be malarky! You know – a spiel! A pitch! Something to pull in the peasants!” Lord Ambrose – having had these mysterious terms explained to him by Ronnie (cultural differences are hilarious, aren’t they?) – takes this in surprisingly good part, simply reiterating that the ghosts are well-documented before leading the bulk of the tour group into the grounds. Ingrid declares her belief in the Earl’s stories, provoking hoots of derisive laughter from Bill, who – presumably because I wasn’t already in enough pain – announces that he doesn’t believe in ghosts: “I’m majoring in science!”
Danish [sic.] Ingrid – who will ultimately give Bill a run for his money in the Sheer Annoyance Stakes – takes this as a personal affront. Arguing that she has no less a personage than Shakespeare to back her up (“When he wanted a ghost, where did he find it? In California? In Michigan?”), she immediately falls into a fight with Bill, fulfilling her role as “the emotional one” (aka the King-Sized Pain In The Butt). Ronnie then interrupts with his idea of spending the night in the castle, planning to write up their experiences for – what else? – his “college paper”. The three are then chased out by the security guards; and when the castle has been locked up, Lord Ambrose retires for the night to his far smaller day-to-day residence down the road. (This is the one thing that The Headless Ghost does get right. Crippling taxes at this time did indeed force many large landowners to try and keep their heads above water by courting the tourist dollar – or by renting out their properties to film crews….) The students emerge from their hiding places in the family cemetery and return to the castle, where they are immediately menaced by – um – a Non-Springloaded Cat. Ingrid recoils and gasps in horror – eek! – as this entirely inoffensive feline wanders into view.
The intruders re-enter the Great Hall, and obligingly enough, a ghost immediately appears. It is the 4th Earl of Ambrose, who then gives us an example of The Headless Ghost’s most irritating feature, a tendency to take a scene that wasn’t interesting in the first place – in this case, the current Earl’s description of his ancestors – and reproducing it wholesale. Although, granted, this scene does have the benefit of extra offensiveness, as Bill responds to a tale of domestic violence within the Ambrose family by grinning, “Guess he slapped her around a bit, huh?” – a comment made after he hears that this particular Ambrose strangled his wife! Anyway, during this recitation, the portrait of Randolph suddenly drops off the wall. Eek! The horror! The 4th Earl warns the intruders to beware of Randolph, then gets on with explicating the film’s highly confusing premise. It seems that Malcolm was not only executed for treason, but somehow cursed, so that he now has “an evil spirit inside him”. Eh? His release requires the recitation of an incantation by “someone now living”, as well as the finding of “a leather pouch hidden in a secret chamber for 400 years”. The Earl implores the help of the visitors since, for reasons they never bother to explain, the other ghosts can’t be at rest until Malcolm is. The students agree to help, of course, and then the Earl recites the incantation – which again for reasons that are never explained, “I can only say once”.
The wing of a bird, whose song was
The snout of a toad, that perished in our road
The scales of a fish, all burnéd in a dish
Gathered in a pouch of leather
Hurled in stormy weather
To set him free, to set him free!
Emotional Ingrid then recites the incantation, and a ghostly voice concludes for her To set him free, to set him free! – as Randolph’s portrait drifts back up onto the wall. Bizarrely, this makes Ronnie furiously angry, and he turns on Bill, tearing strips off him. “You’re always wrong! You – science major!” Ooh, ouch! The two yell insults at one another and almost come to blows, and Ingrid has to pull them off each other’s throat.
Oh, and in case it isn’t clear: this is supposed to be funny.
Ingrid then reproaches the other two for fighting, just when they need to be united. “You are playing right into the hands of the enemy!” she declares. “ You are doing exactly what the evil ghosts want us to do!” Bill and Ronnie are, understandably, somewhat confused by this out-of-left-field announcement. Ingrid continues, “Well, it’s quite obvious that some of the ghosts, like the 4th Earl, are friendly and want our help; while others, like Randolph, and for all we know even Malcolm, the headless one, are evil, and have declared war on us!”
Because, you know, nothing says “A declaration of war by an evil ghost” quite like a painting falling off the wall.
Meanwhile, the present Earl’s agent, Parker, has felt compelled to wake his employer, on the grounds that, “There are strange goings-on at the castle: weird screams, and frightful noises!” None of which we’ve heard. Hey! You mean there’s actually something exciting going on somewhere in this film, and we’re not being allowed to see it!? No fair! Anyway, Parker convinces the Earl to come and see for himself.
Back at the castle, the students are trying to find the leather pouch, carrying on a strenuous search of….two randomly selected rooms. Ronnie and Ingrid end up in a bedroom. This puts Ronnie in a romantic mood, and he makes Ingrid a declaration, telling her, among other things, that he admires “The way you carry yourself in the face of danger!” Hey! There is something exciting going on somewhere in this film that we’re not being allowed to see! Ingrid insists it’s too soon to speak of love, but ends up accepting Ronnie’s frat pin. He takes this to mean---well, what it often does mean, I guess, and immediately starts backing her towards the bed (!!), only for the mood to be shattered by the sudden irruption of two ghostly voices re-enacting the strangulation murder that we heard about earlier. You know – the woman who got slapped around a bit? The distressed Ingrid expresses sympathy for the murdered woman, which for some reason prompts Ronnie to declare, “Whatever happened, she probably had it coming!” This leads to yet another comic [sic.] fight, with an increasingly hysterical Ingrid defending the murdered woman’s honour, and Ronnie unable to understand what she’s getting upset about. The fight ends with the return of the frat pin and a cry of, “I never want to see you again!”
Are we busting a gut yet?
We then cut to the corridor, where a figure in armour is raising an axe – but don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen. Ronnie and Ingrid don’t see the thing, and it’s gone a moment later (?). Bill did see it, though, and spills into the room with a cry of warning. Then, exhausted by all this, uh, excitement, he jumps onto the bed, and sets off the ghostly re-enactment again. Ronnie decides that enough is enough, and that they’re leaving. “But how are we going to get out?” cries Ingrid. “Through the main door of the Great Hall!” says Ronnie manfully. Through the door? Wow! I never would have thought of that!
Outside, the Earl and Parker inspect the castle. They find it still and quiet. They go away again.
It’s called padding, people.
Ronnie, Ingrid and Bill cross the Great Hall – moving away from the door, we notice – only to be accosted by the 4th Earl. Ingrid tries to explain their failure to keep their promise thus: “We tried very hard, but we kept running into impossible hurdles!” Eh!? I must have missed that bit. The 4th Earl lays a guilt trip on the three of them, retreating into his portrait when they refuse to budge. The students move even further from the door, then are bailed up by the voice of Malcolm, who tells them they don’t get off that easy. He promises to try and lead them to the secret chamber, but warns them, “It will not be easy! I can promise you a great deal of interference from Randolph!” Randolph, it transpires, likes being a ghost. “He will do everything he can to stop you!”
“Now, on top of all the other obstacles, we have to look out for Randolph!” bleats Bill.
Stop pretending that something is happening in this film!!
Bill then tries to make a run for it, but is stopped by a burst of Whooshing Powder© – eek! the horror! – which freezes him on the spot but tragically fails to shut him up. Malcolm warns the three that they are in great danger, and may by morning have joined the Ambrose ghosts. Yeah, yeah. Promises, promises. The students accept the inevitable, and Bill is set free via more Whooshing Powder©. The three are sent on their way with a singularly unhelpful injunction – “Find the secret chamber!” – and react by using a pike to break open a random locked door, behind which Randolph is throwing a party. Well, that was lucky! The banquet is also attended by the headless Malcolm – eek! the horror! – and by the 4th Earl, who’s his usual sunshiny self. Randolph tells the three that they were expected – which certainly explains the locked door – and once again we go over the whole ghosts-can’t-rest-until-Malcolm-yada-yada-yada. The three plonk themselves down by the 4th Earl. “I warned you! Randolph has already begun his campaign to detain you!” says the Earl gloomily. “But you must not be fooled by Randolph’s hospitality. He will use every crafty means at his disposal to delay you!” Like making no effort whatsoever to detain them. Reverse psychology, I guess. Man, that’s one crafty dude! Randolph then calls for “More entertainment!” – more? – and a diaphanously clad woman is brought into the room. She proceeds to perform a lengthy and very un-Middle Ages dance, which some reviewers have called reason enough to watch this dismal little film. I, alas, am left to suffer once again from the curse of the heterosexual female.
No, not that curse of the heterosexual female!
“See how cunningly Randolph spins his web?” grumps the 4th Earl. Uh, no, actually. Must have missed that bit, too. It turns out that the Earl means that once the woman has finished her dance, she will be sent to “attend to” Ronnie and Bill. This is enough to get Ingrid on her feet, and Ronnie, too. That frat pin must have changed hands again. The rest of the ghostly gathering being enthralled by the dance, the Earl leads the three away. “This will be the last part of your journey,” he tells them. Journey!? What freaking journey!? “After you reach the secret chamber---” Oh, so now you’re just going to show them where it is, are you? “---you must find the leather pouch.” The Earl goes once more over the conditions of Malcolm’s release – because some things you just can’t hear too often, right? – and pushes down on the arm of a suit of armour. A door slides open, and the three slip through and head down a staircase. A rat crosses their path.
“AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!” shrieks Ingrid, displaying that carriage in the face of danger that we’ve heard so much about.
The rat, not unnaturally, departs. The three enter the chamber, and find the hiding place that has concealed the magical leather pouch from all who have sought it out for the past 400 years. Otherwise known as the unlocked trunk sitting right in the middle of the room. There are many pathetic things in The Headless Ghost, but none so pathetic as this threesome trying to pretend they don’t notice the trunk right away. Or maybe it’s supposed to be “funny”. Ronnie lifts the lid of the trunk, only to find that the pouch is guarded by – a beautiful little python!
“AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!” shrieks Ingrid. She staggers back, trips, and sprains her ankle.
Have I mentioned that Ingrid is a pain in the butt?
Ronnie grabs an axe and disposes of the python. Boo!! (This scene is somewhat lightened by the, uh, not entirely seamless substitution of a papier-mâché snake.) Ingrid is helped up (we never hear another word about that ankle, by the way; she must have just been demonstrating her “femininity”) and grabs the pouch, and the three head for the Great Hall.
Meanwhile, Parker is waking up the Earl again, and repeating the same old story about “strange goings-on”. The Earl tags along with his agent, and this time he hears it, too. They return to the Earl’s house and he calls the coppers – and yes, he does report “strange goings-on”. An entirely pointless scene concerning Lady Ambrose and her desire to live in London follows. I’ll spare you. The constabulary shows up and – upon being assured once again that there are “strange goings-on” at the castle – everyone sets out.
The two parties collide in the Great Hall. The kids try to excuse their presence with “We got locked in!”, progress to “I’m writing a story for my college paper!”, then blame it all on the nasty old ghosts. Sergeant Grayson is suitably unimpressed – and so is the Earl who, it turns out, has never actually seen a ghost. The sarge demands to know what’s in the pouch that Ingrid is clutching. She refuses to hand it over, an act of defiance in which she is encouraged by the ghostly voice of Malcolm. This supernatural intervention has absolutely no effect on the sarge or the Earl (!), so the kids start an extended game of keep-away. Bill finally tosses the pouch to Ingrid, delaying the pursuing bobbies until she has recited the incantation and thrown the pouch at Malcolm’s portrait. This provokes another explosion of Whooshing Powder© - eek! Unmoved by ghostly voices, the Earl and the bulls recoil in terror at this – and do so again as Malcolm’s body comes running down the stairs, while his head floats in from another room. The two re-join, Malcolm drifts up into his portrait, and---well, that’s it, really.
As the Earl and the coppers gasp in disbelief, Ronnie starts previewing his rose-coloured future. “What a story! This will make for my school paper! They’ll plaster my name on the front cover! They won’t be able to print enough copies! It’ll put my college on the world map!”
Ingrid apologises to the Earl for laying his profitable ghosts. Unconcerned, he expounds plans to dig a few more undead ancestors out of the attic. The unflappable Sergeant Grayson then insists that they all retire to the police station, where they can “tell the Inspector everything that happened!”
Alas, poor Inspector! Well--- At least he won’t be detained for too long….
Click here for some Immortal Dialogue from this film.